What Turnbull’s war on terrorists means for journos

If the dark web was an actual place, then Australia’s Prime Minister would be roaming through it with a high beamed Dolphin torch, flushing out all the rats.

Malcolm Turnbull has ratcheted up his attack on terrorists, and their use of social media and chat channels to conduct their insidious activities including indoctrination, radicalisation and recruitment.

The PM is pushing for increased legislation around encryption laws, and is demanding that big players like Facebook and Apple toe the line.

He is confident of success, stating that Australian law will always trump the laws of mathematics. But what about the innocent internet users who will get flushed out by the same button press?

This includes journalists, who stand to lose security and the trust of their sources if all of their communications can be jacked open by the government on suspicion.

GETTING SERIOUS: PM Malcolm Turnbull wants greater access to encrypted messages in the fight against terror. Image: Sydney Morning Herald GETTING SERIOUS: PM Malcolm Turnbull wants greater access to encrypted messages in the fight against terror. Image: Sydney Morning Herald

Presently, most of the major social media and chat channels include end-to-end data encryption. Players like Facebook insist that they cannot break this encryption, even if they wanted to. Apple famously refused to assist America’s FBI unlock a mobile phone seized from a suspected terrorist. They treat privacy very seriously, as it is the core of their business.

But Turnbull is calling for them to change the very way they operate to assist the Australian Government.

“They can’t just, you know, wash their hands of it and say it’s got nothing to do with them…what we need to do is to secure their co-operation,” he said.

The problem is that weakening encryption for terrorists, also means weakened encryption for journalists.

Protecting sources is key to a journalist’s job, because without that trust then they are unable to secure controversial information from people that may feel threatened if they are revealed.

The protection of these sources is already a legal and ethical minefield in Australia, with laws differing in each of the states and territories.

Now that we live in a digital age, chipping at the structural integrity of private online conversations erodes the level of trust between journalists and sources even further.

Facebook acknowleges as much.

“Encryption technology has many legitimate uses – from protecting our online banking to keeping our photos safe,” it said in a statement recently.

“It’s also essential for journalists, NGO workers, human rights campaigners and others who need to know their messages will remain secure.”

But these are troubled times we live in. Should journalists surrender their privacy for the greater good? Time will tell if they even have a choice in the matter.